The Barbarians Inside the Gates: Can the Center Hold?

Many of us of a “progressive” bent are still in a state of shock akin to a waking surrealistic nightmare following the U.S. presidential election, and the Trumpists have if anything so far proven to be even more horrific than our worst fears in their policy initiatives. The saving grace is that if one has to endure authoritarians and xenophobes, far, far better for them to be bungling than hyper-efficient, and this crew has, mercifully, so far anyway made the Keystone Cops and Three Stooges look like Swiss technocrats. Sadly, one can’t count on that to last forever, as tremendous pressure is building among government and business elites, and basic empire-maintenance chores are already forcing the recruitment of some competent managers in at least some key posts.

The best-case scenario would be that the Caligula-esque figure at the top remains impossible to completely rein in, so that his unhinged pronouncements continue to destabilize the governing process and thereby prevent the consolidation of this vile regime’s agenda. Enormous harm is being done and will be done to a wide range of our nation’s institutions, but whether this period proves to be an aberration and that damage can be at least partially reversed, or whether Steve Bannon’s project gains real traction and has “legs,” is an existential question. Does the body politic have sufficient antibodies to repel this viral infection, or is it too weakened and moribund to effectively mobilize its defenses? If the latter proves to be the case, we are in enormous danger.

The upcoming elections in Holland, France and Germany will tell us whether the barbarian hordes will succeed in breaching the last defenses of the post WWII status quo and in cementing the global conquest of right-wing “populist” nativism, or whether the center can hold in “old Europe.” As a lifelong leftist, I find myself in the odd situation of praying for the success of centrists, even the center right — any vestigial forces of relative sanity capable of uniting to hold back the far-right tide. That the dour center-rightist Angela Merkel, the pipsqueak Emmanuel Macron and a Catholic Pope seem to me like heroes of resistance and the last hopes on the barricades plunges me into a state of cognitive dissonance.

That dissonance is even more pronounced here, stateside, where at least some of us on the left, who for decades stridently denounced the CIA and NSA and their ilk and the mainstream media and the centrist elites, now find ourselves in the mind-bendingly hallucinatory condition of praying fervently for the saner parts of those institutions and social groupings to be able to derail the budding neo-fascist vulgarians occupying the pinnacles of state power.

I have gotten into many passionate arguments with my comrades on the left who insist now is not the time to compromise but to push ever more forcefully for a radical leftist agenda. Of course, these people have always made that argument, no matter the situation, like test animals banging their noses into the glass partition trying to get to the food behind it, over and over. They seem to believe that if only the left had pushed a more populist economic agenda, then the gains of the far right would not have occurred. There may be slivers of truth to that, but the left has almost always followed in Rousseau’s footsteps and overestimated people’s fundamental goodness and their desire for solidarity and downplayed the hard-wired tribalism, selfishness, and fear of change and strangers that are also central components of the human psyche, and that are far easier to awaken and exacerbate in large swaths of the population than any latent angelic traits.

The fact is that any classic left/progressive formation in Europe or the U.S. is not currently capable of coming to power or of pushing forth a truly leftist platform if it does miraculously succeed in acceding to power locally or regionally (e.g. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Madrid). I like Bernie Sanders, but I don’t believe he would have won the election, and he would not have been able to enact any substantive legislation if he somehow had. There is a very large swath of the voting public that is motivated by fear of the other, anger at the disorientation of too rapid social change and xenophobia as much or more than by purely economic factors.

Whether in Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Europe, or the U.S., a very large group of rural, suburban and exurban dwellers are very religiously conservative and/or cling to traditions and their own ethnic and national identity. They vote for Putin or Erdogan or the Muslim Brotherhood….or Trump. And it’s not just because they feel left out of economic prosperity (though that of course contributes). If they have a choice between a leftist promising a bigger share of the pie but with tolerance for foreigners and immigrants and those of other faiths, and a nativist promising a bigger share of the pie but protection against the evil other/outsider as well, the second one has been winning, over and over, in recent years.


Far too many people engage in political action as a form of self-expression and are therefore incapable of adaptation to changing conditions. This is excusable in the young and inexperienced, but inexcusable among the more sophisticated, those who should know better. Of course all political ideologies have a utopian foundation. At the core of everyone’s political orientation is a vision of what, given one’s view of human nature and potentials and one’s fundamental ethical orientation, an ideal society would look like. Even those pessimistic about human nature, such as Hobbesians, still have a concept of the best possible societal structure (in Hobbesians’ case one that best constrains people’s basest impulses). What most people don’t seem to understand, though, is that the utopian aspirations that inform one’s core political ideology and navigating the realities on the ground in complex, rapidly mutating societies are two very different things.

To encourage an insurrection when one has insufficient forces to prevail, for example, is a form of suicide, not cogent political action. If one wants to be an effective, coherent political actor, one needs to lucidly analyze socio-political realities as they are, not as one wishes them to be. The left has historically been very bad at this (other than some ruthless Leninist/Stalinist types, but they had other serious problems…). This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t advocate for one’s beliefs or campaign for those issues closest to one’s heart (as long as one understands that most of these are very long-term struggles that take generations), but it does mean that one also needs to have a broader vision and to be alert to changing conditions, so that one can respond intelligently to the actual situation, to the facts on the ground.

Global civilization is indeed in a major ecological and social/economic/political crisis that the band-aid remedies of centrist elites are woefully inadequate to address, but in the immediate moment the reality is that if all the social forces from the sane center right to the left don’t make common cause and build temporary electoral coalitions to stop the forward motion of the far right, we face the very real risk of plunging into an abysmally dark period, one that might preclude ever being able to effectively address the root causes of that civilizational crisis, or that would, at best, radically retard those efforts by generations. We can return to our internecine struggles with wild abandon after the current crisis is over, but if we insist on focusing solely on our divisions rather than on building a broad-based, multi-faceted resistance, history will judge us very harshly (if there are any competent, independent historians left standing in the rubble…). I’m not saying we should abandon our specific issues or campaigns, just that we have to also focus on the gestalt as well.

Some revolutionaries have always argued that it’s best to root for the most oppressive segments of the ruling classes to accede to power, as they will “exacerbate the contradictions” and awaken people to the true nature of the system. This is easy for a few intellectual theoreticians to tout when it is not they, or at least not they alone who pay the price, but large swaths of the most disenfranchised who bear the brunt of authoritarian regimes. Those who said there would have been no difference between Hillary Clinton and Trump were horribly misguided. In life it is far more important to first avoid catastrophe than to constantly seek one’s ideal of perfection. You can return to that pursuit of perfection in due time, but if you drive your car off a cliff, you will have permanently precluded all hope of pursuing those refined ideals. Many said they weren’t excited about Hillary, but I urge everyone to develop the capacity to get very excited about avoiding abysmal horror, and to develop an appreciation for muddling through when it’s the best one can do.

Does anyone today remember who ran against Hitler in 1932? It was Paul von Hindenburg, a stuffy military man and far from an enlightened chap, but can anyone doubt that even a potted plant or a schnauzer would have been a vastly preferable alternative to the National Socialists?

In my heart of hearts I am a utopian anarcho-socialist who yearns for a world without money, with genuine meritocracy, free of racism and misogyny and all forms of discrimination, with no poverty or hunger, in which workers and stakeholders own their enterprises, with nothing but totally sustainable green, biomimetic technologies, organic food, half the world reserved for the non-human natural world, etc., and I will argue for that ideal model in contexts in which it feels productive, and in my work I hope to continue to highlight positive, inspiring models and initiatives that point the way to aspects of such a world. I’ll also continue supporting those heroic folks who engage in resistance to the most egregious abuses of power, whether governmental or corporate. But I’m also a realist and a grown up, and in my life I’ve often had to negotiate far from perfect situations to find the least bad outcome. We all have to do that. I urge us to grow up and to apply that real-world experience to our political lives as well.

J.P. Harpignies, Bioneers Conference associate producer, is a Brooklyn, NY-based consultant, conference producer, copy-editor and writer. The author of four books: Political Ecosystems, Double Helix Hubris, Delusions of Normality, and Animal Encounters; he also edited the collection, Visionary Plant Consciousness; and was associate editor of the first two Bioneers books: Ecological Medicine and Nature’s Operating Instructions. A senior review team member for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for the past seven years, he was formerly a program director at the New York Open Center and the founder/co-producer of the Eco-Metropolis conference in NYC. JP also taught t’ai chi chuan in Brooklyn, NY for nearly 25 years.

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